Learn about this chart-topping, billion-streaming, presidential campaign-soundtracking anthem from the man who got the job of writing the verse lyrics
Sam Hollander is a songwriter and producer with a seriously impressive CV. One Direction, Katy Perry, Weezer, Ringo Starr, Carole King, Tom Jones… the list of artists that have made the most of Hollander’s considerable talents is as long as it is varied. His new book 21 Hit Wonder: Flopping My Way Way To The Top Of The Charts is an inspirational and amusing account of a career that has earned him 22 US Top 40 Hits, 10 No 1s, 10 Top 5s, and 87 Top 10 chart positions globally. All songwriters will root for Hollander as he recounts 30 years of peaks and troughs, filled with as much bad luck, flops and false starts as chart-topping successes.
But there definitely have been successes, including Panic! At The Disco’s High Hopes. The song was initially worked on when Jonas Jeberg, Taylor Parks, Ilsey Juber, and William Lobban-Bean began writing the song at a BMI writing camp in Aspen, Colorado in 2015, before Hollander became involved. One of many highlights of his time working with the Las Vegas pop-rock behemoths, High Hopes still holds the record for most weeks spent at No 1 on the US Hot Rock Songs chart, at 65 weeks, and has now been streamed over one billion times.
“While Panic’s Brendon Urie started working on the follow-up to Death Of A Bachelor, he also took the lead in the Broadway musical Kinky Boots, where he delivered a sensational performance. After witnessing him in action, my brain started spinning with all the adventures Brendon must have had on his journey so far. He had topped the charts at 18, had a few setbacks at 22, and now, here he was, nearly 30, with five albums under his belt, bigger than ever, and to top it off, he had become a Broadway star. Talk about a wild ride!
“I spent the next six weeks brainstorming a slew of words and concepts, fuelled by Brendon’s experiences, without knowing if I’d ever receive another opportunity, but I was motivated and I became more and more convinced that I had a great sense of where the album could go.
“After a few months, there seemed to be an opening. Crush (Panic!’s management team) sent me a fantastic track that was completely executed except for its unfinished chorus. The hook’s payoff was a big chant of, ‘Oh… it’s Saturday night.’ That part was fantastic, but there was nothing conceptually framing it. It was like a perfect punchline that was missing the setup to the joke. I sat down and started typing all sorts of nonsense, and almost immediately, I came up with the words, ‘I pray for the wicked on the weekend. Mama, can I get an amen.’ Everyone involved loved it, and shortly after, I learned that they were going to release the album with this track. I wasn’t particularly sold on the tune’s long-term potential, and I certainly had no idea that the phrase, ‘Pray for the wicked’ would become the album’s title. That was pretty cool.
“Then, after a decade of waiting, I finally received the call I had been hoping for: Brendon wanted to collaborate with me in person. On Death Of A Bachelor, I had only sent my lyric sheets to Brendon and producer Jake Sinclair, but this time I was going to work alongside this young legend from scratch. When I arrived at Brendon’s home, we immediately got down to business. The day before, Brendon, Morgan Kibby and Jake had taken one of my lyric sheets and combined it with an incredible Dillon Francis track, resulting in the song Hey Look Ma, I Made It.
“It sounded remarkably huge, but the verses hadn’t been written yet. Brendon opened the session, and I began to scat ideas to him. I had a somewhat perverse perspective with the words since the track had a more uplifting dance floor feel. I thought it would be fun to balance it with some acerbic, less obvious lyrics. I always aim for a sweet and sour juxtaposition, and Brendon ran with it.
“Over the course of a few weeks, Brendon, Jake, and I conjured up eight more songs together, and the creative synergy was off the charts. I had a sneaking suspicion that we were onto something massive. When we played the tracks for the label and management team, they were over the moon. I could practically hear the album’s buzz growing, but there was one tiny problem: we needed a monster of a tune to complete it. That’s where Crush came in with a track and hook created by a dream team of music geniuses: Ilsey Juber, Jonas Jeberg, Cut Classics, and Tayla Parx. The chorus was epic, and the first time I heard it, I was covered in goosebumps. It had originally been intended as a hip-hop hook, but every single rap A&R had passed on it, leaving it as lonely as a cheese board at a vegan potluck.
“With the clock ticking on the album’s deadline, Brendon and Crush brilliantly fused a pre-chorus/bridge from a short-lived Brendon and Jake idea with the chorus, and High Hopes started to take shape. Nowadays, this Frankenstein cut-and-paste method is happening all the time, but it often rings hollow to me. However, on this track, they totally nailed it. It just needed verses to complete it, and I was convinced I could deliver after writing eight songs in a row with this talented cat. But every time I asked about it, I was met with radio silence.
“Finally, on the day before my kid’s twelfth birthday, I got the green light to give the words a shot. The album was set to master within a week, so the pressure was on. I put on my headphones, closed my eyes, and played the track on loop. I knew that my job was critical to bring the song home. I decided to frame it as a narrative, threading a delicate needle between being aspirational and not preachy or contrived. The verses poured out of me, taking no more than 30 minutes to write. The first verse was a conversation with my late mother, and the second was a dialogue with my soon-to-be-12-year-old, passing the generational torch like a relay race. I played the finished product for the guys and, blessedly, they loved it.
“Two months later, Say Amen (Saturday Night) was released as a set-up single, and it unexpectedly topped the Alternative charts. The Pray For The Wicked album dropped later that spring and debuted in the top spot as well, but the buzz kept growing for High Hopes. It seemed like everyone was digging the tune; TV shows, movies, commercials, etc. Even Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg made it his campaign anthem, and his staff and volunteers created a goofy dance to it that went viral. That’s when I knew we had something special on our hands.
“As time went on, the song hit No 1 Pop, No 1 Alternative, and No 1 Hot AC, breaking a decade-plus record with its reign atop Billboard’s Adult Pop Songs radio chart, and ruling the Hot Rock Songs Chart for an unprecedented 76 weeks. Now, over one billion streams later, High Hopes is hands down the biggest song of my career. It’s hard to express how in debt I am to Brendon Urie and Crush. They really gifted me the greatest year of my musical life.
“At the height of the song’s hysteria, Blink-182’s Blame It On My Youth was a hit at Alternative as well. That was immediately followed by the release of Hey Look Ma, I Made It [also by Panic!…], which caught the High Hopes tailwind and completely smashed across formats as well. Somehow, the grand total of these concurrent successes resulted in me topping the Billboard Rock Songwriter charts for nine weeks!
“I should have been basking in that most exhilarating of moments, but deep down inside, I couldn’t help but feel like this dreamlike stretch was just another fleeting cycle. Like any other neurotic creator, I’ve always viewed the glass as half full and rapidly cracking. In that way, I guess I’m sort of my own self-defeating prophecy. It doesn’t matter what you achieve in this business; you can never escape the dragging self-doubt.”